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When You Can’t Be With A Dying Family Member by ELEANOR HALEY

When You Can’t Be With A Dying Family Member


It’s a new world we live, one of the difficult restrictions that protect our health and safety. As we struggle to learn to live with so many things we never imagined, perhaps the hardest is not being together in times of illness and loss. With hospitals and hospices forced to restrict visitors, the ways that we know how to show love, care, and support at the end of life are being upended. We’re left asking what we are supposed to do when we can’t be with a dying family member.

I can’t help remembering the morning my father died with a new-found guilt. He didn’t die one of those “good” hospice deaths, in the comfort of home. He was in a hospital bed, unconscious and on a ventilator. But we were able to be with him. We were able to spend weeks camped in an ICU waiting room, visiting him. Family and friends could come and go. We were able to gather at his bedside.

Now, isolated in my home hearing from readers and friends who are separated from sick family members and unable to hold traditional funerals, I am suddenly so grateful for that time in the hospital. What do we do now, when we can’t be together physically? How can we still feel connected? What does it look like to express love and care when can’t be in the same room, give a hug, or take someone’s hand? How can we feel close? What options are there for sharing memories, storytelling, and grieving together?

How many times have we typed on this site “there are no easy answers”? There are no easy answers. What works for one person won’t work for another. Something that works for one family will be all wrong for another. We asked you all last week what you were doing to be close when you couldn’t be together with someone who was dying. The responses were overwhelming.

What to do when you can’t be with someone who is sick or dying

  • Move your phone calls to video calls. If the person you love is still well enough to take calls, take advantage of FaceTime, Skype, or any number of other video-chat services. For those who grew up in a smartphone world, this might be obvious. But if you grew up on a landline (or your loved one did) this might not be your go-to. Give it a try – it is amazing the added closeness that can be there, even through a screen.
  • Hold video family-meals. If your loved one is still able to eat, set up a Zoom or other group video chat to all eat “together” at the time that they are eating. It won’t be the same as all being around one table, but you can still all break bread and share the usual dinner updates, stories, and memories.
  • Kick it up a notch by all making a family recipe or eating something the person who is sick loves. If you are going to eat together (and assuming at least one person is still allowed to visit and bring food), you can increase the connection by all deciding on the same recipe to make. A great choice is something the person who is ill loves or a traditional family recipe that you would be sharing if you were together.
  • Find out what you can send or drop off. If your loved one is in a hospital, hospice, or nursing home, give a call and find out exactly what you are allowed to bring/send. Even if you can’t visit, you can still make their space more comfortable. Whether it is big fuzzy socks, photos, books, items from their home, cards, and letters, or anything else that might bring some comfort. Things big and small can go a long way. Consider all five senses – can you send things that stimulate each of them?
  • Create a playlist (or a family playlist). Use Spotify or any one of the many other music services out there to make a playlist of music the person loves. You can do this on your own, or you can create a shared playlist and invite others to add songs.  This is wonderful to do for the person who is ill, but it can also be a great thing to just connect as a family. It can help with boosting mood and increasing connection.
  • Sing and play music together (in real-time). Now, this would neeeever work for my family, as singing and playing music is not our thing. But for those of you who are musically inclined, sing! Just because you are in different places it doesn’t mean you can’t all sing together from wherever you are – using Zoom, facetime, etc. Just make sure you use earbuds or headsets, so the mic on your computer/phone isn’t picking up other people singing at the same time.

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